Monday, 30 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Dirty Grandpa

Directed by: Dan Mazer

Produced by: Bill Block
Michael Simkin
Jason Barrett
Barry Josephson

Screenplay by: John M. Phillips

Starring: Robert De Niro
Zac Efron
Zoey Deutch
Aubrey Plaza
Dermot Mulroney
Julianne Hough

Music by: Michael Andrews

Cinematography by: Eric Alan Edwards

Editing by: Anne McCabe

Studio(s): Billblock Media
Josephson Entertainment
QED International

Distributed by: Lionsgate

Release date(s): January 22, 2016 (United States)
January 25, 2016 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 102 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $11.5 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $99, 930, 262

Today's film up for review is Dirty Grandpa, a film which in the relatively short life-span it's had since it's release last January has already notched itself up quite the notorious reputation. It has has earned itself absolutely scathing reviews from critics (Mark Kermode even went so far as to name it his worst film of 2016), and with five nominations is one of the big players at the upcoming Golden Raspberry Awards. However, it was a profitable picture, making nearly $100 million off of an $11 million budget, so studio executives will probably use that as some phoney excuse to add to the whole 'critics don't know anything about audiences argument.' What I always say to that one is that just because people went to see the film doesn't mean that they liked it, just look at Batman V Superman - Dawn Of Justice (a review for which will be coming soon). Okay, context out of the way, story goes that Jason Kelly (Zac Efron), a corporate attorney with an attractive but uptight and demanding fiancee Meredith Goldstein (Julianne Hough), attends his grandmother's funeral, where he reunites with now-widowed grandfather Dick (Robert De Niro). Much to the chagrin of his wedding-planning fiancee, Dick, who used to share a close relationship with his grandson, wishes for Jason to drive him from his home in Georgia to Boca Raton, Florida. However, as we find out, this is all part of Dick's plan to fulfil his dying wife's wishes that he get back out there and live life to it's fullest, and so Jason and Dick end up on the road, getting involved in all manner of shenanigans. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, and I have to say there is a certain degree of good, I like the principal actors. For those who don't know, I kind of hero worship Bob De Niro for the performances he gave in films by Martin Scorsese and his continued success since then. Even recently, though few and far between, he's done some good work in the likes of David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook and Joy. Also, I like Zac Efron quite a bit and have a real fondness for the High School Musical films. The two leads also share a solid onscreen chemistry that in itself leads to some of the film's better moments. Also, I think that Zoey Deutch (who really seemed to break out in 2016), although not given much to do, is sweet and rather endearing in her part as Shadia. Furthermore, I do have to say that for the first forty or fifty minutes of the film, although I recognised it's inherent outrageousness and attempts to appeal to the shock factor, I kind of enjoyed it. It wasn't sliced bread, but there were some funny individual scenes, particularly in the interplay of the exchanges between De Niro and Efron. 

That being said, it's a shame that one of the greatest actors ever to grace the screen and a young actor more than capable of holding his own, who'll no doubt have a fine career of his own, degrade themselves in such a manner by starring in this film. As I said, I did kind of enjoy it at first, but I got to a point with the movie, and I can tell you where exactly it was, it was with the entry of the Keystone Cops into the fray, that I realised, amidst a ghastly, absolutely hideous scene, this series of face-pulling snarky remarks which feels more like a dreadfully drawn-out collection of outtakes from the gag reel, that the film had roughly an hour left in it. It was then that I realised I was in for the proverbial bumpy night, and not a Bette Davis bumpy night, but a trainwreck, which for those of you who haven't seen Dirty Grandpa is one of the only fair ways of being able to give you an idea of just how bad it gets. I hope that Michael Andrews got paid a decent amount of money for his work, because he's a talented composer and the poor bastard deserves it for having to sit through this and write music for it. Still, no amount of money can hide the disinterest in the sonic soundscape of murder-by-numbers musical compositions which simply follow the lines and connect the dots together. There's nothing to distinguish it any way, and it's one of those scores that feels the need to attempt to subconsciously cue us into laughing. Poor form. Also, for all the flash and flourish of the camera work and the locations, it's still a fairly ugly film to look it. It just doesn't look like any of these characters are inhabiting anything that closely resembles the real world. Ultimately, the real sinners here are the producers, writer and director. It's scary to think not just that people actually spent time concocting this sort of thing up, but that people shovel this shit out to audiences and consider this a movie that is considered to be in a presentable and completed form. It's a badly-stitched together patchwork of sketches at best. I alluded earlier to the drawn out scene involving the Keystone Cops, but there's about four or five instances of this in the film, turning a throwaway one-liner/gag into a two/three-minute scene, which brings me to my other point. Now I left this for a while before reviewing so I could appropriately gathered my thoughts. I did think that the running time was a problem, but I was shocked to discover that it was closer to my coveted one hundred minutes than two hours, because it certainly felt every bit of two hours. The filmmakers who are largely responsible for the templates of contemporary mainstream comedy, the ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker) trio and John Hughes, stuck stringently throughout the 1980s to the eighty-ninety minute mark, Hughes cutting his films down from two-and-a-half and, in the case of Planes, Trains And Automobiles, a three-hour workprint, and their movies are none the worse for it. I know it's a sore spot and a bit of a bone to pick with me, but I'm getting cross with watching movies with overlong running times. It's one thing having some inherent flaws, but this is a worrying trend in contemporary cinema. 

There were certain things I liked about Dirty Grandpa, namely the chemistry between Robert De Niro and Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch's work and the fact that for the first forty or fifty minutes it's a relatively funny film, but boy does it go off at the deep end. It's not as consistently bad as, say, Fifty Shades Of Black, but it's still an utter dirge of a film. It's a shameful, gross, nauseating piece of work. It's scary to think that this at one stage made the Black List, because if it was anything resembling a quality comedy at that stage, it certainly isn't any more. Grot!

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 2.1/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Sweet

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - The Neon Demon

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Produced by: Lene Børglum
Nicolas Winding Refn

Screenplay by: Mary Laws
Nicolas Winding Refn
Polly Stenham

Story by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Elle Fanning
Karl Glusman
Jena Malone
Bella Heathcote
Abbey Lee
Christina Hendrick
Keanu Reeves
Desmond Harrington
Alessandro Nivola

Music by: Cliff Martinez

Cinematography by: Natasha Braier

Editing by: Matthew Newman

Studio(s): Gaumont Film Company
Wild Bunch
Space Rocket Nation
Vendian Entertainment
Bold Films

Distributed by: Amazon Studios
Broad Green Pictures
Scanbox Entertainment
The Jokers

Release date(s): May 20, 2016 (Cannes Film Festival)
June 8, 2016 (France)
June 9, 2016 (Denmark)
June 24, 2016 (United States)
July 8, 2016 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 117 minutes

Country(s): France
United States

Language: English

Production budget: $7 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $3.4 million (estimated)

Today's film up for review is The Neon Demon, the latest film from director Nicolas Winding Refn. I've been a fan of Refn's work since I saw Bronson back when it was first released and have seen and reviewed every film he has made since. As such, I've got to see over an extended period an artistic evolution of sorts as a filmmaker. He followed Bronson with Valhalla Rising, a tremendously underrated and challenging work reminiscent of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God as a descent into the seven circles of hell. Then of course Drive came along and while it is a movie that hipsters fawn over, the fact is is that whether or not you like it, there's something quite special and singular about it. I for one thought it was a masterpiece when it came out, and retrospectively my opinions have went up even more so. Two years later, with more the autonomy to do what he pleased, Refn made Only God Forgives, which instead of being the Drive Part 2 that many audiences were expecting, ended up more along the lines of Valhalla Rising. A baroque odyssey in the Bangkok underworld, I remember watching this in the Queen's Film Theatre, and as well as certain individuals sneering and laughing throughout, there were a few walkouts, so reactions were very polarising, and of course it got booed at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but everything gets booed there anyway. So here we are after a longer period of time between features, and Refn (now billing himself as 'NWR,' almost a form of turning oneself into a brand) presents us with The Neon Demon. It stars Elle Fanning in the lead role of Jesse, a sixteen-year-old small-town girl who moves from Georgia to Los Angeles to follow her aspirations of becoming a model, and we see her and what happens as the story unfolds when she enters the industry. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, The Neon Demon is an extraordinary work in terms of the art of it's aesthetics. From a visual standpoint, it's absolutely breathtaking. Beautifully shot by Natasha Braier, it has that distinctive quality we associate with Nic Winding Refn films, with lots of colour contrast and evocative lighting. The framing of the shots themselves, their composition, is immaculate, playing around not only with technique itself but the central narrative. Also, the mise-en-scene, with the wonderful costumes and production design, is not only reminiscent of what we see (or at least, what I see as a layman) of the fashion world, but is an accentuated, almost hyper-realised version of that world. It's also one of those films that see many different elements have a sort of co-dependency, in that if you remove one of them from the overall piece, the whole thing could come crashing down. As such, the visuals and the story they are telling are backing up by the editing of Matthew Newman. I mentioned the shot composition as being immaculate, and the same can be said for the timing of Newman's editing. Contrary to the opines of many others who saw the film, I don't feel that these scenes were drawn out too long. Instead, we were inviting to bathe in their opulence, these amazing sequences existing not necessarily in the literal narrative of the piece, but that of a psychological, more representative form, similar to the ideas Timothy Leary espoused as regards to his theory of the Reality Tunnel, which in itself, could applied to our perception of the film as a whole. Through the editing, we are able to experience all of these thoughts and feelings. Equally, the film is backed up by an amazing score from Cliff Martinez. His third consecutive score with Refn, it's strange to think that he was the studio's choice to score Drive over Refn's Johnny Jewel (who would play a large part in that soundtrack anyway) because his compositions work so perfectly with the director's aesthetics. Notwithstanding the fact that he understands the fundamentals of using ambient, electronic music as a minimalist storytelling device, he knows how to crank it up when he needs to. There are some breathtaking extended sequences consisting of no dialogue whatsoever, instead just a perfect blend of sound and vision, and this is where Martinez really flourishes. His music becomes the narrative driving force, taking us on a journey that challenges our conventional perceptions, to take things in beyond objective consciousness, becoming instead that of the subjective. It is through these scenes that I think the film really shines and gets across the true essence of what is trying to get at. The film also features a strong central performance from Elle Fanning, who in recent years has shot up as one of the most intriguing young actors in Hollywood, and here she delivers I feel her best work to date. Her character of Jesse has a relatively simple arc, but the way in which Fanning more or less transforms herself, not through any great physical change but over the course of the film through subtly adding layers to Jesse, is a joy to behold. Taking advantage of her natural gifts, she has the intelligence to convey all of this through facial expressions and body language. Much of what is remarkable here is how this is all conveyed through the unspoken, not having to resort to petty amateur dramatics in order to try and hook the audience. She won't win any awards for this performance, and it's a shame really that she hasn't even been up for consideration, but mark my words, I wouldn't be surprised to see her have a major awards season sweep with the next five to ten years. Incidentally, speaking of performances, although it's only a relatively small part, Keanu Reeves is terrifying as Hank, the sleazy manager of the motel that Jesse is staying in. Once again a case, like Albert Brooks in Drive, of casting against type, before we even see Hank, we can tell from the voice behind the closed screen door that he's an irritable, aggressive bastard. Then when we do see him, he comes across as vulgar, intimidating, shrewd and manipulative. Reeves, a man who has made a career playing likeable action heroes and who comes with a reputation as one of the nicest people in Hollywood, conveys all of this in what I assume is less than ten minutes of screen time. That is the mark a good actor. Finally, Nic Winding Refn himself is the last person who should be applauded, both for the conceptual premise and his direction. What he has plotted out is a provocative, decadent look into the fashion world, while also juggling a story that falls somewhere between a melodrama like All About Eve and the twisted beauty of Dario Argento's best films. For all of this and his previous film polarising and dividing people, I personally feel that he is one of the most unique and gifted filmmakers of his generation. There is no one else out there making films like this, and instead of following the runaway success of Drive with any number of projects which could have given audiences what they wanted, he has continued to challenge and provoke us with his engaging artistic endeavours. In many instances, I think The Neon Demon is his most difficult work from a casual viewer standpoint, but on the other hand I was gripped and couldn't tear my attention away from it. I remember texting a friend (who really didn't like it) after watching it saying that Refn has went further down the proverbial rabbit-hole. Well, if this is what it feels like down there, count me in!

As you can tell from my waxing lyrical, I thought The Neon Demon was a great movie. Like Arrival though, I have arrived to The Great However, because for all that is good about it, I do not feel the film to be a masterpiece. It has a lot going for it, but the one thing that I feel detracts from the overall experience somewhat is the script. There are three credited screenwriters, playwright Polly Stenham, Mary Laws and Refn himself, and unfortunately while the central premise is strong, the screenplay itself is not. Thankfully Elle Fanning has plenty to do with the character of Jesse, but the same cannot be said for that of the rest of the cast. The characters on the written page are fairly two-dimensional and I'm sorry, really I am, because you've got Jena Malone, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote who from a visual standpoint are perfectly cast in their parts, but making their characters prone to extreme emotional ups and downs does not make them fully-rounded. It's a shame really considering how strong the main character is, but everyone around her is lacking in depth. Furthermore, the dialogue in the film is more or less perfunctory, in that it doesn't sound like anything that would come out of anyone's mouth. Even though it sparsely used, it lacks the kind of poetry that was achieved by Hossein Amini's script for Drive, instead coming across as forced and befuddling. I actually had a think about this, because The Neon Demon has been on my mind a good bit since I've seen it. Last year, I became enamoured with the films of Kenneth Anger, particularly the Magick Lantern Cycle, who for those you haven't seen them (and please do, they're incredible), does not make features but makes shorts with little or more generally no dialogue, instead having this remarkably ahead of his time aesthetic which blends sound and vision through extraordinary visuals and the films' score/soundtracks. It has had such an impact on me that I've mulled over the possibility of completely changing the direction of my own long-pending short film. I think if Refn, given all of the extended wordless sequences reminiscent of the likes of Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome, went the whole hog and made the thing as a silent film, it could have been a masterpiece. As it is though, faults and all, it's still a great film.

As you can see, I've had a lot to say about The Neon Demon. Ordinarily, a film with such glaringly obvious issues as it has with the characters and the dialogue in the script, and how this affects the actors' performances, would have severely detracted from my prognosis. That being said, in this case I will be making an exception, because I feel that what the film does well it does it to such a degree that it is able to somewhat negate the damage done by these faults. Warts and all, The Neon Demon is still a provocative, arresting and important film. While your opinions may not be the same as mine (indeed, I expect that some people will outraged, disgusted and offended by the film), I think that this Nic Winding Refn's latest is a significant work worth investing your time in.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.8/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Banging (this multi-tasking biz is becoming a lot more manageable than I thought it could be, because I am gradually eliminating all the factors in my life which mean little to me. It's good to be in control of yourself.)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Arrival

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Produced by: Shawn Levy
Dan Levine
Aaron Ryder
David Linde

Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer

Based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Starring: Amy Adams
Jeremy Renner
Forest Whitaker
Michael Stuhlbarg
Tzi Ma

Cinematography by: Bradford Young

Editing by: Joe Walker

Studio(s): Lava Bear Films
21 Laps Entertainment
FilmNation Entertainment

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Release date(s): September 1, 2016 (Venice Film Festival)
November 10, 2016 (United Kingdom)
November 11, 2016 (United States)

Running time: 116 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $47 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $160, 070, 580

Today's film up for review is Arrival, the critically-acclaimed science-fiction film by Denis Villeneuve which has received a fair amount of attention during the beginning of this particular awards season. Also a commercial success, it could be argued that this is the most high-profile science-fiction feature to come out since Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 masterpiece Gravity. Adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang's short Story Of Your Life, Arrival stars Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks, who is lecturing her university students when twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft arrive at different locations across the planet. U.S. Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits her to join his team, with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to make contact with the aliens, decipher their language, and find out why they have come to Earth. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, Amy Adams is terrific in the lead performance as Louise Banks. One of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, Adams has a quality that comes naturally to her, in that she is able, without getting too much into melodramatics, to conjure our sympathies. Her Louise Banks is quite clearly, a strong, confident, intelligent woman, but through Adams' work here we are constantly aware of the underlying trauma and grief that is central to the character. Adams conveys that through subtlety; small gestures with her body language, voice and facial expressions tell us everything that we need to know. Furthermore, as the film's protagonist, through which we see all that is occuring onscreen, does a splendid job of giving the film a sort of base, keeping things level-headed and grounded. The five-time Oscar-nominated actor will probably pick up her sixth nod for this complex, powerful performance, but I fear that, God forbid, she's going to end up like the new Leonardo DiCaprio and not win because it's a genre film. The Oscars have a historical bias against science-fiction, fantasy and horror, but I have for a long time held the opinion that the best parts, especially for female actors in contemporary cinema, are to be found in these films. Arrival certainly proves my point. Another thing I would like to praise the film for is it's technical attributes. When I was watching this in the cinema, I was constantly away of the scope and the spectacle of the piece, and there were moments when I was genuinely taken aback by it. I was under the assumption that it must be a film budgeted at over $100 million, and was surprised to see that it was made for $47 million, which is a fairly modest budget for a Hollywood science-fiction film. The visual effects are of a consistently high quality, and done in such an indiscreet way, without doing anything outrageous, that they don't detract from the drama in any way. Obviously, it being quite clearly a science-fiction film there are some things that are unfamiliar and clearly effects-driven, but for the most part everything is done so that despite having this alien quality, it still seems real and familiar. The same can be said too for the sound, which is at numerous points in the film utilised to great effect, especially in relation to the alien creatures themselves. Sound and vision are key ingredients as to how we too, alongside the characters, begin to surmise what is they are on Earth for, and whenever you start to implement these technical aspects into the film, almost so that they become key to the execution of the plot themselves that's the mark of a smart film. Praise must also garnered onto the cinematography of Bradford Young, who does a great job of, as I mentioned, capturing the epic scope of the film. I talked about space in my last review for High-Rise, but here it used in multiple way. We can feel the genuine size of the spacecraft, but not only that, in both the dialogues between the humans and those between them and the aliens, we are aware of the physical differences between the different species, and yet there is a sense of closeness, an intimacy to the proceedings, as they attempt to communicate with each other. It's a very delicate balancing act done well here. The editing too by Joe Walker should be highlighted, in that despite the obvious 'alien' nature of these spacecraft and creatures, everything fits seamlessly into the real world. None of this feels like a bunch of computer-graphics blobs of pixels being pasted in. Also, without saying much about the plot, which I want to avoid because it does involve spoilers if I go too much into detail, but while the film at times jumps between flashbacks and the central story, that even if it doesn't follow 'chronological' order, Walker effectively communicates to the audience the essential spirit of the story so that it follows through the path of a natural progression. I think part of what makes the film feel so big and perhaps bigger-budgeted, notwithstanding the obvious technical qualities, is the fact that it is a movie of big ideas that doesn't belittle it's audience but instead engages them with a thesis; it's not afraid to challenge them with big questions that they will take with them out of the cinema and think about long after the film's conclusion. Equally contemplative is the score by Johann Johannsson. I first became aware of his work through Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners, and once again he composes these beautiful, meditative piano pieces which not only accompany what is occurring onscreen, but encourage the audience to mull over and think about what they are seeing. He has the rare gift of being able to balance classical film composition with that of his minimalist influences, and that comes across here. Speaking of music, this film features masterful use of Max Richter's On The Nature Of Daylight to bookend both it's opening and beginning. Admittedly, I'm biased, given that I've been a fan Richter ever since I heard his work on Ari Folman's extraordinary Waltz With Bashir back in 2008, but this piece from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks has been used before in several films (I think notably of the mix with Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth in Martin Scorsese's horrendously overlooked and quite brilliant Shutter Island) and I have to say that this is the best I've heard it used. It's implementation into the film is excellent, and everything just fits perfectly. I loved this track beforehand, but now near enough any time I listen to it, Arrival comes to mind. Finally, although of course he has been working for a good while now, and has made a number of films in the States, this is the film that will firmly establish Denis Villeneuve's reputation for the next several years. It is a film directed with such resolve, assurance and confidence. Applying the same aesthetics for storytelling as he has in his other films, Arrival is at it's heart a dramatic piece that happens to involve science-fiction elements. Villeneuve metaphorically flips the image around, revealing a reflection of ourselves in the mirror, and it is upon this image that we must ponder. It's such a classically told, elegantly made and distinctive piece of work, and Villeneuve should be congratulated for making it work on all these different levels.

Now, much as I loved Arrival, and believe you me, I do, I have to acknowledge that there are enough negative criticisms I can level towards the film that, with my objective head on here, I have to conclude that it is just shy of being a masterpiece. I think there are two key problems to the film, on which I will elaborate: firstly, that I do not feel the supporting characters are not as well developed as they should be, and secondly how that ends up affecting the performances of those actors portraying them. Some people have been highlighting the dialogue as an issue with the film (there is a particular moment during the climax that I could see people grumble on about), but I don't see that as an issue. Unfortunately, while Louise Banks is clearly the central character, I still feel that those around her, namely Colonel Weber, Ian Donnelly, and Agent David Halpern (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) were developed well-enough. They may be supporting players, but I still want to have a sense that they are more than just characters page; I want to them to lift off the page, especially when you have one as strong as the central character. This also affects the performances of the actors portraying them. Whitaker, Renner and Stuhlbarg are all very capable actors who I have seen do excellent work, both in a lead and supporting capacity, so it's a shame that however much they try, they are still playing characters that are somewhat two-dimensional and end up feeling more like devices to work around the crux of Louise Banks, as opposed to people with their own story to tell.

That being said, while these issues I think deny it from the status of 'masterpiece,' Arrival remains in itself a remarkable film largely deserving of the accolades it is receiving. It has an excellent lead performance from Amy Adams, a consistently high production value, technical prowess, carries a lot of legitimate weight behind it's ideas, a haunting and powerful score from Johann Johannsson and assured, confident direction from Denis Villeneuve. Science-fiction is always something that is welcome in my books, but it's all the better when it is done with such grace and elegance.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.9/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Rejuvenated (I've more energy than I've had in years right now)

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - High-Rise

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Produced by: Jeremy Thomas

Screenplay by: Amy Jump

Based on: High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Starring: Tom Hiddleston
Jeremy Irons
Sienna Miller
Luke Evans
Elizabeth Moss

Music by: Clint Mansell

Cinematography by: Laurie Rose

Editing by: Amy Jump
Ben Wheatley

Studio(s): Recorded Picture Company
British Film Institute
HanWay Films
Northern Ireland Screen
Ingenious Media

Distributed by: StudioCanal

Release date(s): September 13, 2015 (TIFF)

March 18, 2016 (United Kingdom)
April 28, 2016 (United States)

Running time: 119 minutes

Country: United Kingdom

Language: English

Production budget: £6.1 million (approximately $8 million)

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $4, 152, 521

Today's film up for review is High-Rise, Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel.

I would like to begin this review by regaling y'all with a little story. I work on occasion with Extras NI, a Northern Ireland based agency who provide background artists (that is the industry terminology, not mine) for film and television productions. As such, I've worked for them on Game Of Thrones, and I have to say they are a terrific bunch of folks to work for, and if anyone in Northern Ireland ever gets the opportunity to work for them, do. At the start of 2014, I got a text from Extras NI for 'a high-profile production,' to be shot in Bangor, giving me the dates for four days work. Unfortunately, the latter two dates clashed with a music festival in my private security job, so I turned this down. A couple of months later, I went and bought Ballard's High-Rise in Waterstones, and was told at the till that they were shooting this in Bangor. Things clicked in my head, and on the boat trip over to V Festival at Weston Park in Staffordshire, a number of my colleagues who had been working security on the set told me about it and it sounded pretty cool, so I rang their office the next day. I had already missed two of the dates that I was wanted for, so I said on the phone that I'd gladly work for free or volunteer as a runner on those other two days, just so I could be able to gain from the experience of working on the production. Then I was informed, as pleasantly possible though, I might add, that they weren't just looking me for a standard extra part, but that they wanted me for one of four featured parts in the film, and that because obviously it had already been cast, production had started and I'd missed those two dates I was unable to participate. Needless to say I was shocked to hear that I had turned down a featuring part in High-Rise to travel to a job at Creamfields Festival in Cheshire, the shittiest of the shittiest festivals, with the most mud, least sleep, worst crowd, crap music and badly accommodated campsite (why was it that ours was the only one that never seemed to have any hay put down to deal with the mud? I should know, every day I had to walk through all the campsites for an hour, even after doing up to seventeen-hour shifts!) that you can think of. And of course, despite my making those decisions and sacrifices to my personal and professional life, I'm now being blackballed for refusing to work the holidays and being tarred and feathered as a disloyal worker, and yadda yadda yadda, everything's going fabulous there! Hey there, how you doin'?

Now that story time with Cal is over, let's get down to business. As I've mentioned already, High-Rise is Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, but producer Jeremy Thomas (a man who I've a lot respect for) has been trying to get this project up and going more or less since it's original publication in 1975. In the late 1970s, it was being developed with Nicolas Roeg and Paul Mayersberg, the directorial-writing collaborators behind Roeg's masterpiece with David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and later Eureka, and later in the 2000s with Richard Stanley and Vincenzo Natali writing and directing respectively. In 2013, Ben Wheatley became interested in finding out who owned the rights to the book, leading him to Thomas, with the two becoming collaborators and Wheatley bring his regular screenwriting partner and wife Amy Jump to adapt the book. In High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a twenty-fifth floor apartment of a luxury tower block, quickly beginning a relationship single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), and becoming friends with documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily-pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). He also becomes friendly with the building architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives on the fortieth floor at the top of the high-rise with his eccentric and snobby wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Thus, Laing is perfectly placed as our protagonist, because for all of it's hype as the future of modern living, things don't go so well in the high-rise, as we see the residents become increasingly disinterested in the outside world, becoming instead absorbed in the tensions between each other, threatening to descend the whole building into chaos. Got it? Good!

Starting off with the good, I want to praise the general direction of the film, and I don't mean just the directorial work of Ben Wheatley, but also of Jeremy Thomas as producer. Ballard's High-Rise is something that was never going to be an easy, straight adaptation, but Wheatley and Thomas have ploughed on forward with a highly uncompromising flick. Wheatley goes all out, his interpretation of the text being less the scientific approach Ballard takes but rather we climb inside the minds of the characters inhabiting the high-rise. Everything is experienced through their eyes, and as such we too are invited into the delirium, the madness, the revery, the psychological descent/ascent of these characters from the trappings of modern society. Thomas deserves a lot of praise for backing Wheatley's very particular vision for the film, which doubtless is challenging for some viewers to swallow. A lesser producer could have said "no" and made a more run-of-the-mill adaptation. Another aspect I want to praise about the film is the visual aspect of the film, both in terms of the cinematography and the mise-en-scene. There is some great production design on display here, making the most of the film's small budget, replicating the brutalist structures that began to rise up in post-war England in the 1960s and 70s. Notwithstanding their look, there is also this sense of alienation that comes from the sense of space between the characters. Despite them all being neighbours and residents living in the same building, we can see that both physically and psychologically they are distant from one another. In that regard, Laurie Rose's cinematography also contributes to that sense of space. Yes, she does some great work with the actors, but even within close proximity of one another, it feels like there is a vacuum, a void, as though conversations are occurring over two opposite side of a river. This quality can also be put down to some strong performances from the actors. Tom Hiddleston is a great lead as Dr. Robert Laing. Not only is it a thoroughly dedicated physical performance, I mean, he really throws himself into it, but I think mentally he just gets it. He has the task of being the audience's voice of reason amidst all of the chaos going around him, trying to make sense of the proceedings, and yet we can see, slowly, in his own quiet way, Laing is living his own personal madness. Hiddleston does all of this with confidence and assured, tactful knowledge, knowing when to draw the line and when to go out. It's also the best performance I've seen out of Sienna Miller in a long time. Now, in fairness it isn't usually her fault, because as we've seen in films like American Sniper, she oftentimes ends up getting saddled with a lesser role to her male counterparts. Here, as Charlotte Melville, you can almost see her relishing something with a bit of substance, depicting Charlotte as stuck in the middle of wanting to hold on to her sanity but being drawn in by the allure of madness. Speaking of physical, Luke Evans is great in his supporting role as Richard Wilder. On the one hand, you have this loving, caring family man, but on the other he is at heart a complete and utter hedonist, and Evans completely embraces this. The last actor I'd like to praise is Jeremy Irons for his part as Anthony Royal. Irons' Royal is a dreamer who wants to create a haven for others, but almost inevitably ends up being distanced from them, despite his attempts to develop friendships with others. You also get the sense through Irons' performance that although he is having a moral crisis, struggling with conscience as he sits in his top floor apartment seeing everything he has planned go awry, that in his quieter moments he is still plotting, planning as to how he can use the situation(s) to his advantage. Irons is a subtle performer who can convey a lot through seemingly not doing much, through small gestures and tones. Finally, Clint Mansell's score is a fine accompaniment to the film. Not only is it able to convey the quizzical mystery behind the phenomenon of what is occurring onscreen through pieces with percussive and woodwind instruments, but in an interesting way when it head towards sections with more grandeur, once the strings kick in, it becomes almost a satirical commentary. You have this elegant, almost romantic at times music, and it acts as a juxtaposition to the debacles onscreen. It's a strong example of the things that High-Rise as a film does right when it is at it's best.

Now, while there was a lot I liked about High-Rise, I do feel that is also a film that has a number of flaws, ensuring that while it is a very good film, it's not the great film that it could have been or aspires to be. The first issue I would like to flag up is that while we have a great cast playing these characters, I never got the sense that they were anything more than just that, characters. It's not my favourite of Ballard's novels, to be honest (for that I'd have to go with Crash), and I think the original source material has something of the same issue, although to a lesser extent. I got this feeling that there was something missing, and it wasn't until the film finished that I realised what it was; pathos. I felt that the film was too cold and clinical in dealing with it's characters, and because of this I unable to engage what I feel to be legitimate emotional empathy with them. I was watching what was happening to them, or what they themselves were causing, but I didn't care for the outcome or the consequences of their actions. I think this is down to a director and screenwriter who (and I mean this with the best of respect, but it is a negative criticism nonetheless) are more focused on the thematic content. The characters feel like psychological devices used as a commentary on the socio-political thesis proposed, as opposed to fully fleshed people in their own right. Also, Wheatley and Jump also edited the film, and at just shy of two hours, it's too long. It could have been cut back by about fifteen or twenty minutes, bringing it in at a far brisker running time and not let it overstay it's welcome, especially for a film as full on as this one is. 

On another note, this sounds terrible to say in relation to this film, but there is another work I can recommend in the place of both this and the original source material. David Cronenberg's first major film Shivers is also set in a modern high-rise apartment block, and it's residents too start to turn on one another, in this case caused by a sexually-transmitted parasite. On the one hand, it's almost a straight genre flick, sex zombies abound (the original title was Orgy Of The Blood Parasites), but in that Cronenbergian way it also an intelligent commentary on contemporary society, and the beginning of his hot streak of 'venereal' horror films including The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers. Coincidentally, Shivers was also released in 1975, and it's interesting that an artist who cites Ballard as a major influence and would go on to adapt Crash in 1996, would out-Ballard the master at his own game.

I know that recommending another film in place of both the original source text and the film itself isn't exactly an endorsement, and neither are the negative criticisms I've levelled at it (the lacks of pathos in the characters, the editing/running time), but High-Rise is still a very good film. Yes, it's troubled, but there's still a lot to like about it. The general direction from Ben Wheatley and Jeremy Thomas as director and producer is daring and uncompromising, I appreciated and admired the visual aspect of the film from the mise-en-scene and cinematography standpoints, there are at least four strong performance from Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons and I really liked Clint Mansell's score. It's a troubling film, but I still think it is one worth checking out and seeing what you make of it.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.7/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool

P.S. Terrific use of Portishead's cover of ABBA's SOS (link below)!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Yakuza Apocalypse

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Produced by: Yoshinori Chiba
Shin'ichiro Masuda
Shinjiro Nishimura
Misako Saka

Screenplay by: Yoshitaka Yamaguchi

Starring: Hayato Ichihara
Yayan Ruhian
Riko Narumi
Lily Franky
Reiko Takashima

Music by: Koji Endo

Cinematography by: Hajime Kanda

Editing by: Kenji Yamashita

Studio(s): Django Film
Happinet Corporation
OLM, Inc.

Distributed by: Nikkatsu

Release date(s): May 21, 2015 (Cannes Film Festival)
June 20, 2015 (Japan)
October 9, 2015 (United States)
January 6, 2016 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 115 minutes

Country: Japan

Language(s): Japanese

Production budget: N/A

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $12, 756

Today's film up for review is Yakuza Apocalypse, one of the most recent directorial outings from Japanese legend Takashi Miike. For those of you who don't know, Miike-san is one of my favourite directors and for my money the most audacious of filmmakers over the past twenty-five years. No contemporary artist in film (yes, I'm looking at you, Tarantino...) has dared to challenge and push the boundaries of cinema quite like Miike. Be it his yakuza flicks like the Black Society trilogy (his best yakuza film is unquestionably Agitator, an epic gangster saga to match any classic in the genre), his surreal and ultraviolent endeavours (Audition is for me the most frightening film I've ever seen and among my top ten greatest films of all-time), family-oriented features such as Zebraman, or his most recent successes with the jidaigeki samurai films 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai, Miike (though he often downplays his personal flavours to a workman-like approach, which always reminds this reviewer of Michael Curtiz), over what is now nearly a hundred productions since he began directing in 1991, has thoroughly established himself with a reputation that precedes him. So, anyway, hoopla context out of the way, let's get down to Yakuza Apocalypse: set in the underworld run by the Japanese yakuza, Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) is a loyal man who suffers the ridicule of his fellow gang members, due to his skin condition making him unable to get tattooed, which of course are used symbolically by the yakuza organisations within Japan. However, assassins become aware of the location of his boss Kamiura's (Lily Franky), and unhappy with his activities offer him an ultimatum to rejoin the international syndicate he left or to be knocked off. I won't go too far into plot, but put it this way, unbeknownst to the assassins and his own underlings, Kamiura is a battle-hardened vampire, and, well, things go the way the do in a Miike film. Shall we dance?

To start off with the good about the film, I have to say that it is totally bonkers and features all the usual things you might come to expect from a Miike film, but also there is a lot more to it than simple irreverent indulgence, and I think while of course you can put a lot of that down to Miike, some of the ideas in the screenplay from Yoshitaka Yamaguchi really take you aback. There are some moments of genuine originality that have you completely hooked, and others which are just so absolutely ridiculous that not only is it beggar's belief but they are gut-bustingly funny (I direct you to Exhibit A, namely the World's Toughest Terrorist...). Also, it is for the most-part a well-executed hybrid action movie, in that yes we have yakuza power struggles, yes we have vampires running amuck, yes we have the apocalypse and all these different things going on in a glorious bay of blood, but it also a martial-arts film. I can't for the life of me tell you who done the choreography on the movie, but among the assortment of characters is Kyoken, played by Yahan Ruhian, the Indonesian martial artist and actor, most famous for playing Mad Dog in Gareth Evans' The Raid, and as such we have four or five fight scenes featuring some terrific martial-arts choreography with Ruhian at the centre of them and a high standard of stunt work throughout. Speaking of performance, there's a very good one at the heart of it by Hayato Ichihara. Over the course of the film, the character of Kageyama goes through a transformation, and it displays intelligence on Ichihara's part that it isn't just a sudden change, but that of a gradual one, subtly changing alongside Kageyama's personality, whilst still retaining the fundamental characteristics which make him up. I can't say I've seen Ichihara in anything before this, but I'll be interested to see where he goes in the future as an actor, especially considering he's featured in Miike's upcoming adaptation of the Blade Of The Immortal manga. The final thing I'd like to flag up is the overall look of the film. Even though it's obviously a picture with a relatively modest budget, they work around that with a visually interesting mise-en-scene, with cinematographer Hajime Kanda highlighting all of it's qualities and Kenji Yamashita's editing covering up most of the patches whilst integrating appropriately all the different elements, with the literal and visual effects coming together in a stylistically unique fashion. To conclude on the positives, this is the kind of film that only a master like Miike-san could manage to pull off. You almost have to admire it for sheer boldness' sake, but the fact is is that even so it could have been a real mess. Instead, what we have is a highly entertaining, at times outrageously funny and rather fascinating film.

Now, for all that I did like about it, I do have to say that there are certain things that grated on me about it that need flagging up. For all the qualities that are to be found in Yamaguchi's script, there are also a number of problems. It may be original in terms of ideas, but as far as it's rudiments and fundamentals go the story itself is a fairly familiar and easy story. As such, while all this stuff is happening around the characters, they themselves are stock, ones that we have seen before in any number of different movies before. The trajectory of the story is cliched, and frankly doesn't offer enough new to the table to elevate it above the slew of great works that we see come out every year. As such, all the originality, while fun, serves as window dressing to what is something not without flaws. The final thing to say is that because of this the film doesn't have enough to sustain a near two-hour running time. If they had have shaved off fifteen to twenty minutes and come in at around a hundred minutes this could have been a masterpiece, but unfortunately goes on a bit and threatens to overstay it's welcome.

That being said, I am revising my original opinion on the film. I knew that it was very good, but in retrospect, it is a great film. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It might not be as fulfilling from an all-round standpoint as some Miike's other films (I'm thinking in particular of the Jodorowsky-inflected brilliance of Gozu), but Yakuza Apocalypse is a widely entertaining action-fantasy hybrid that, faults and all, delivers in spades what many others fail to.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.0/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Buzzing (I'm turning into Charlie Sheen minus all the drugs, only I've the blood of a bull in my veins, baby!)

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Doctor Strange

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Produced by: Kevin Feige

Screenplay by: Jon Spaihts
Scott Derrickson
C. Robert Cargill

Based on: Doctor Strange by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rachel McAdams
Benedict Wong
Michael Stuhlbarg
Benjamin Bratt
Scott Adkins
Mads Mikkelsen
Tilda Swinton

Music by: Michael Giacchino

Cinematography by: Ben Davis

Editing by: Wyatt Smith
Sabrina Plisco

Studio: Marvel Studios

Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Release date(s): October 13, 2016 (Hong Kong, world premiere)
October 25, 2016 (United Kingdom)
November 4, 2016 (United States)

Running time: 115 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $165 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $657, 813, 341

Up for review here, under the knife (oh, how very fitting, Cal, you're a gas...) today is Doctor Strange, the fourteenth and latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the last to whet those superhero appetites until Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 comes out in May next year. Doctor Strange is one of those projects that has been in the back-burner for quite some time, for while he may be beloved among comic-book fans (he's a favourite that always seems to be crop up and play a big part in large storylines), his character and 'powers,' as it were, are of a slightly different nature to what we have come to expect in contemporary superhero films, so to some extent it was always going to be somewhat of a gamble. In this adaptation of the comics, brilliant but self-centred neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suffers the loss of the use of his hands in a car accident, ending his medical career. However, after learning a paraplegic who learned how to walk again, he is directed to Kamar-Taj, where the sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) takes him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who shows him the astral plane and other dimensions. Strange begs to be taught the mystical powers to access them, to which, despite his arrogance reminding her of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), one of her pupils who broke with the old ways and took his disciples with him. Kaecilius has, of course, in the way of these things, been causing a bit of trouble lately, so things go their usual way. Got it? Good! Call that an abrupt cutoff if you want, but I just don't think there's much more to say.

To start off with the good, I want to highlight the technical qualities of the film. Although I know it was released in 3D, me being me I went to see it in 2D, and I can say that the visual effects and CGI of the film are absolutely stunning, so much so I think I would like to have seen it in the former format. Nevertheless, I was drawn in by the mind-bending brilliance of these effects, and not only do they contribute greatly to some very exciting and unique action sequences, but they are seamless in their design, so not only can we see what is going on without getting lost in the thick of it, we can appreciate the story that they are telling with them. Highly accomplished work here. Obviously Ben Davis as cinematographer does much to contribute here, and there is some terrific imagery at work here amidst these well-shot action sequences. The harmony and synthesis of this interaction of visual aesthetics is completed by the editing work of Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco, creating a wonderful overall piece and one of the most visually interesting blockbusters I've seen in recent years. We've also got another great score from Michael Giacchino, who really has been on a roll with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Jurassic World and Inside Out under his belt over the past couple of years. He's one of the few composers who is able to work at this high level with high degree of output (he's done ten scores since 2014) and yet still maintain a strong quality control over his work. Giacchino has a certain gift at being able deliver rabble-rousing scores while telling a story with his music unique to any particular film. At it's worst, it can be intrusive, but when it's done well, as it is here, it can really contribute to the film. Another praiseworthy quality is the performances of the cast. Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mikkelsen and Swinton are all on good form (and Benedict Wong is hilariously deadpan as Wong, the seemingly humourless master keeper of relics and texts of the Kamar-Taj), but I want to focus in particular on Benedict Cumberbatch. Netting the Sherlock actor, one of the hottest properties in both television and film for the lead role was a real coup for Marvel, and the film benefits greatly from his presence. Cumberbatch oozes the swagger and charisma necessary for conveying the arrogance of the character, but also in his own way, both through his excellent physical control, composition and facial expressions, captures our sympathies and increasing emotional investment in Stephen Strange's downfall as a neurosurgeon and eventual resurrection as a mystic. In a Universe that is getting some really terrific actors in to play their protagonists, Cumberbatch's Strange has already become one of the standouts. Finally, I want to praise the directorial efforts of Scott Derrickson. Having come a long way from the likes of Hellraiser: Inferno, The Day The Earth Stood Still remake and Sinister, and while the second film there was no small fry, this is his first massive gig, and it's a triumph. There's a lot of different things to take into account with a Doctor Strange film, and any one of them could cause the film to flop and fall flat on it's face. However, for the most part, everything is in good order (especially the overall mise-en-scene, with the production design, costumes and make-up/hair being another standout element of a high standard), and, indeed, Derrickson does things with a certain degree of flair, giving the proceedings a bit of his own flavour, character, in the process.

However, these praiseworthy things being said about Doctor Strange, and I will continue to say good words about it, there are a number of faults with the picture which ensure that while it remains a very good film, it is not a great film. Namely, these issues come from two different aspects; firstly, the script, and secondly, an aspect which also affects to some extent the script, the production directive. I'll deal with the former first, and frankly while I enjoyed Doctor Strange, it suffers from a number of the common pitfalls that come from establishing a new character in an origin story film. There has to be the prelude, the conflict and the rise of how they come to be who they are. Marvel have a terrific formula as far as money-making, crowd-pleasing blockbusters, so much so they can practically churn out a good movie with their hands tied behind their backs, but it always seems to be the case that any time they are concerned with origin stories, they tend to be hitting all the same beats, getting the basil-exposition out of the way before they get down to business in the sequels. However good the film may be at establishing this character and the world he inhabits, it is, almost by defaults, formulaic in terms of it's general plot and where it goes. I had the same feeling about Iron Man in 2008 and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. Furthermore, and as I said this has a direct effect upon the script, a criticism that can be levelled at it is that this is part of the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the production directive is clear at not only establishing Stephen Strange but getting him to fit into the wider scheme of things. As such, a lot of time is spent weaving it together and tying up all the loose ends, and unfortunately, much as this is a unique world very much of it's own, it is not a self-contained one but a small piece of a bigger puzzle. It's a rare thing for a successful origin story to work entirely as a self-contained film (Richard Donner's Superman and Robocop did it well, and most recently Batman Begins and 2009's J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot). It does somewhat here, but not entirely.

Despite my having those reservations about the script and the general production directive, I had a lot of fun with Doctor Strange. The mise-en-scene is terrific, with some fantastic visual effects, great cinematography, a strong score from Michael Giacchino, a winning lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and solid direction from Scott Derrickson. It has it's flaws, but it's still an accomplished and entertaining piece of filmmaking.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.5/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Well